Friday, July 20, 2007

Waiting for Harry; Why isn't Michiko?

I might as well get this part out of the way first, just go ahead and tell you that I'm a thirty four year old woman who loves Harry Potter, and I'm not ashamed to say so. Nor do I think I should be, because I know I'm not the only one, far from it. I'm writing this the morning of Friday July the 20th, a little more than 12 hours before seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling's series will at long last be released, and it seems like everyone I know has been counting down these last few days. At least one woman's taking off two days from work, so she can read the book straight through, without distractions, and she's a veterinarian, not some sort of freelance slacker. We've been waiting, patiently or otherwise, for this book, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," for an awfully long time.

At a minimum, we've been waiting since the last book, "Harry and the Half Blood Prince," was published in 2005. So that's two years right there. That's long enough, if you ask me. Especially if you consider the kind of cliffs upon which Rowling like to leave her hero and her readers hanging. If you read the Potter books, you know exactly what I mean. If not, well, how can I explain what it's like to finish a Harry Potter book? It's kind of like the end of a really great second date, when you know without a doubt that you'll be seeing the person again, but haven't a clue as to where or when, or what will really come of it. Something like that. Only usually, you aren't left waiting two years for the third date.

Really though, we've been waiting for "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" ever since we happened to pick up that very first book, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," whenever that may have been. For some people, I suppose it was when it very first appeared, all the way back in 1998. Waiting that long seems unimaginable, altogether unbearable, for the impatient likes of me.

I first started reading the Harry Potter books in the fall of 2001. I was visiting a friend who had children, and had them all over her house. I'd been hearing about them, these children's books that adults were reading, that were so popular they'd taken over the Time's bestseller list. So I started reading the first, and then the second, and couldn't stop until I'd gotten through "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." And then I had to start the waiting, for the next, and then the next, and now this next and last. So I've been waiting six years, to find out what will happen to Harry, in the end.

If you haven't read the books, no doubt you're wondering right now what all this fuss is possibly about, why all these grown ups get themselves so worked up over a bunch of kid's books. The thing is, children's books or not, the Harry Potter books are really, really good. The characters are complicated, people have real regrets, with which they have to learn to live, or not, moral ambiguity abounds, even the right actions can have unwanted, unforeseen and unforeseeable, bad consequences, which cannot be undone. Some things are just unfixable. Bad things happen to good people, and good things sometimes do happen to bad people. The universe in which the Harry Potter books unfold, for all its spectacle, magic, and wonder, bears more relation to the subjective living of a real life, where nothing ever feels so steadfastly real as we'd like it to, and nothing is ever so simple or so neatly resolved as we tend to thing it should be, than the most painstakingly realistic contemporary fiction, no matter on which bookstore or library shelves it happens to be placed.

And then there's the way the series has unfolded, or, rather, the way we've all had to wait and wait, and wait some more, for each release. That's meant, for a lot of us, that we've read all of these books about a thousand times. I have, at any rate. Which has given me the sort of relationship with these books that I haven't had with any since I was a child myself, pouring endlessly over other series , Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden, the Narnia books, or Madeleine L'engle's "Wrinkle in Time," series. There's something so different about the way you read a long series of books, the way you get to know the places and the people, they become so much richer and closer over time. And that seems like such an obvious thing, doesn't it? But there's not much in the way of series fiction out there for adults, not that's struck my fancy anyway, so it's the kind of obvious thing that's easily forgotten. I'm awfully grateful to J.K. Rowling and her Harry for reminding me of it. Thanks to her, I've discovered that Madeleine L'engle's books do in fact stand the test of time, for me at least, though others from my childhood might not. And I came upon Phillip Pullman's gorgeous "His Dark Materials" trilogy. That one was mentioned in an article full of suggestions for Harry Potter fans, in need of something to read while we waited for the next installment.

Have I mentioned that I don't do well with waiting? Really, I don't, it pains me to no end. The only way I can stand it is simply by pushing it out my mind entirely, which has been increasingly difficult, as the publication date's drawn closer. All those posters in the book stores, the publicity events, and then yesterday, there was that review in the New York Times. Did you happen to see that? Or possibly you've heard about it?

I saw it there, in the front section of the Times, and read it eagerly enough, not thinking all that much about it, vaguely assuming Scholastic had sent the Times a review copy, and other than that I was just glad Michiko Kakutani didn't give away any plot points, and had given it was a good review. Then I went back through it a second time, kind of hoping, I'll admit, for a plot point or two I might have missed on the first go round. That's when it hit me, this one little line, "this volume, a copy of which was purchased at a New York City store yesterday." Yesterday. The review was published on Thursday. So "yesterday," meant that someone had been selling the book on Wednesday. Wednesday.

I don't normally have much of a problem expressing my emotions, particularly when they're of the rageful sort. Plenty of people can back me up on that. But this, this left me kind of speechless. We mere Harry Potter loving mortals have been waiting years and years for the final installment, and Michiko Kakutani not only somehow or other procures herself a copy, at a New York City store, she has to rub it in all of our faces in her review? Because I'd really like to know what store it was, exactly, and if the book was out on the shelves, for all and sundry, last Wednesday, when Kakutani's copy was purchased, or if her copy, and hers alone, was made available so very far ahead of the official release date? Or perhaps she was one of a select few, special, preferred, customers allowed to buy their books ahead of time? Whatever exactly it is, that was going on, in that New York City Store, I hope they know that what they did was wrong, and that I, for one, am very disappointed in them.

There. I feel a little better now. But not so much, because I still don't know what happens to Harry in the end, and Michiko Kakutani does. And that is just not fair.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Scooter's Surprise; Happy Independence Day!

Being this contrary sort of person that I am, I have to admit I dread most holidays, or at any rate, the prospect of spending them here in the city. They tend to involve things I simply do not enjoy. Parades, perhaps, or endless rounds of parties I don't really feel like I'm old enough to be at yet. Or worst, so far as I'm concerned, and most predictable of all, the flocks of tourists who descend upon us, thinking of our city as the perfect backdrop for their holiday getaways. So I do my best to make sure I've got a getaway of my own lined up, for most of the major holidays. It's just better for everyone that way.

The Fourth of July's a different story though. It's one holiday New York does to perfection. The slow easy day of movie going, maybe, reading or a little patriotic shopping, finding your way onto a rooftop party, as the day starts cooling down, flag-waving kept, of course, to a merciful minimum. Then an explosion into noisy spectacle, not just one, but two sets of fireworks over the East River. Those few short moments in which we lapse from our usual minimalistic good taste, fall into gaudy grace and generosity despite ourselves, ensuring everyone who's interested a halfway decent view of the pinwheels as they spiral and flame out above our heads. And the tourists even seem happy enough staying in their various and sundry hometowns, on the fourth of July.

This year though, I couldn't really conjure up much in the way of festive feeling. It might have had to do with the holiday falling on a Wednesday as it did this year, but I don't think so. Contrarian that I am, I like the disruptions a weekday holiday brings, the confusions and rushes, the nothing being as it ought to be. That's where the surprises turn up, isn't it? And what's life without surprises?

Some surprises aren't so welcome though, and it was an unwelcome surprise, last Monday, that took the fun out of my fourth this particular July. I probably shouldn't have been surprised, I should know better than that by now, I suppose, but surprised I was, all the same. Last Monday, you see, I was happily playing around online, reading an article about how a Federal Appeals court had declined I. "Scooter" Lewis Libby's request to delay the beginning of his 30 month prison sentence while he appealed his conviction of four felony counts of lying to federal agents, perjury, and obstruction of justice. Scooter, I was learning, had even been assigned his very own Federal Inmate Number by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, 29301-016. It really did look like Scooter was heading to jail. He'd been tried, convicted, sentenced, and the Bureau of Prisons was readying his room. Convicted felons go to prison in a nation that functions according to the rule of law, right? That's the way things work, when things are working, isn't it? So I was having this moment of actual optimism that things might possibly be working. I haven't had a moment like that in a while. I'd forgotten what it felt like, living in a country where things work the way they're supposed to. I have to tell you, it felt pretty great.

But you know where this is going, right? A few minutes later, I got my nasty surprise. A new story popped up on the website I'd been perusing, informing me that President Bush had commuted Scooter's sentence. He hadn't pardoned him, as he'd been rumored to be considering, but he'd commuted his sentence, decided the prison time was excessively harsh, the $250,000 fine, and probation period would be punishment enough for Scooter's crimes.

If you haven't been paying attention to Scooter's legal travails, you might be wondering why on earth our president, with approximately half the executive branch under some sort of congressional subpoena or other at the moment, his Attorney General Gonzalez looking more useless by the hour, the daily flow of bad news from his war in Iraq, not to mention the mystery of what exactly it is his Vice President is doing with all those "man sized" safes he's got there in his office, and everything else a president has to deal with on a daily basis, would be bothering with the details of this guy's sentencing. It's probably because Scooter, prior to his indictment, held the triple titles of Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs, Chief of Staff to the Vice President, and last but not least, Assistant to the President. You don't hear too much about that last one, do you? And possibly because, as you've probably heard, his indictment arose from the investigation into the 2003 leak of Valerie Plame Wilson's identity as a CIA covert agent, nasty, and not altogether finished, business that. Still and all though, you'd kind of think the erstwhile leader of the free world might have bigger fish to fry. Wasn't he supposed to be working on some sort of surge? How's that coming along, I wonder?

The real question, of course, is why this, of all things, came not just as a surprise, but as such a blow to me? Why Scooter's sentence, and not Cheney's safes, or Karl Rove's hundreds of thousands of vanished emails, or Bush's countless signing statements, or the twisted path that led us into the disaster that is Iraq? The reality is, Scooter's just a stand in, for any and all of those things. He's bit of a last straw, it's true, but mostly, he's a convenient shorthand for each new revelation of this administration's clear and shameless belief in its own omnipotence, its utter disconnection from the laws that created this country, from which it has evolved, and that have defined and sustained it so well for 221 years now. But now these people are in charge who just don't care. That's what I have finally concluded. The problem's not that they are acting from a different set of principles, one I happen not to understand. It's that they're lacking principles entirely, beyond the most basic, will to power. That's about it. As far as anything beyond that goes, or anyone so unfortunate as to be beyond their immediate circle, they simply do not care. I don't think they even understand that the rest of us exist as real, living, breathing people in quite the way they do. And these are the people we're allowing to run things, to act upon the world on our behalf, and in our names.

For all the destruction they have wrought, I do have to admit that Bush and his accomplices have given me one great gift, albeit unintentionally. They've made me realize just how much I believed in the America I learned about in my eighth grade civics class, for all that I've never been a fan of flag-waving. Remember that America? The one that actually was a "Beacon of freedom and opportunity"? The one that just didn't do things like torture? The place where freedoms of speech and of the press were simply beyond question? Where it never occurred to anyone to seriously question the validity of our elections? I liked living there, so much, in fact, that I never gave it a second thought. Seven years ago, though, things started to change, and suddenly I'm realizing my tax dollars are being spent on man sized safes to which I'll likely never get a key. Assuming, of course, that Vice President Cheney didn't buy those safes with his own money. In which case he really ought to keep them in his bunker, in that undisclosed location where he feels most at home. Otherwise, it's time he starts to wrap his head around the reality that they do not belong to him, no more than any of his other closely guarded secrets do. Each email, every single piece of paper he is so determined to keep hidden, is nothing more than the product of his work, and so ultimately, it's not his property. It's ours, it's yours and mine. Until Cheney and his President go so far as to declare our Constitution null and void they do still work for us. We're the ones who pay their salaries, after all.

Happy belated Independence Day!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Staunch Women and Their Guilty Pleasures; "Grey Gardens" at IFC

I've never really grasped the concept of the guilty pleasure. I don't watch "American Idol". I believe in the literary merit of the first "Bridget Jones," book, though the second made me want to hurt myself., and I think everyone who appeared in Sascha Baron Cohen's brilliant " Borat" movie was only being him or herself, and all those people who are so busy suing him just now, would be well advised to reconsider their lawsuits, before that truth becomes glaringly apparent to large numbers of people in open court. Generally speaking, the things I like, I also think are good, in one way or another.

So, when I tell you that, from the very first time I saw the documentary, "Grey Gardens," it gave me a new understanding of what a guilty pleasure could be, you'll realize I'm not talking about the cinematography. I love that movie. I'm not sure how many times I've seen it, but I'm pretty sure I could have it on an endless loop, and never get tired of it. But I've felt guilty about watching it every single time. Because, you see, in case you don't already know this, it's a documentary about two crazy old ladies, a mother and daughter, with countless cats, at least one raccoon, and a house that's falling down around them, exploiting their insanity for our voyeuristic viewing pleasure . Or so the story goes. Having seen it on the big screen for the first time recently, though, I should tell you I've begun to have some doubts.

"Grey Gardens" is one of those movies that's just about impossible to explain to anyone who hasn't seen it, but I'll do my best to give you the basic facts. Albert and David Maysles made it over about five weeks in the summer of 1973, filming Edith Bouvier Beale, and her daughter, Little Edie, at their decrepit mansion in East Hampton. The two had lived there alone together, with their menagerie, ever since Edie had moved out of the Barbizon Hotel in New York in 1952, when she was 35. The two of them sing and dance, argue, mostly about why Edie came home, and why she's still there, and lounge around in the sun. Edie vamps it up fetchingly in what she calls her "revolutionary costumes," all of which cover her head, takes care of the animals, says the most astonishing things, swims, and pines for New York. Then they have a little party for Edith's eightieth birthday party. And they happen to be, respectively, the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onnasis.

So there's not all that much happening. I know. The thing about "Grey Gardens," is its subjects, mostly Edie, though her mother has her moments too. Most notably when Edie tells her, by way of reproof as she's been reminiscing over her youth, and failed marriage to Edie's father, "You can't have your cake and eat it too," and Mama answers, "I had my cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it, and had everything I wanted." It's a little disconcerting, to hear an eighty year old woman, whose house is in pieces around her, so pleased with herself. But she's got nothing on Little Edie.

Edie on camera is more than disconcerting. She's disturbing to watch, in her turbans and fishnets, declaring that "It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. Do you know what I mean? It's awfully difficult." As though it was the most reasonable of all possible things a person could ever say. It's not so much the things she says, or wears, or even does, though, that make Little Edie so difficult to watch, and impossible to turn away from, all at once. It's more to do with the way she directs her eyes right at the camera, directs the action, seems somehow to be controlling events in a way she's not really supposed to be doing, as the subject of a documentary. She's not supposed to be the one with all that power. Edie's not settling into the space she's supposed to occupy onscreen. She's everywhere at once. It gets awfully difficult, trying to keep track of who's running the show at Grey Gardens. Things become much easier if we stop trying, and just agree that Edie's not so much disturbing as disturbed. We have to deal with the guilt, it's true, of taking pleasure in watching a crazy lady disporting herself for our enjoyment, but we are relieved of the necessity of questioning our most basic assumptions about who's got the power, in this whole filmmaking setup. And frankly, dealing with the guilt requires much less effort on our part. This arrangement almost works, so long as we keep Edie, and her movie, within the confines of a tiny TV. screen.

A few weeks ago, though, I went to a midnight showing of "Grey Gardens," at the IFC center. Up there on the big screen, Edie would not be kept to the terms of a deal she'd never entered into in the first place. Watching her, larger than life, rather than miniaturized this time, I realized just what a slap in the face the film's existence was to her famous cousin, who hadn't wanted it made at all. Who had, in fact, been very nearly willing to let Edie and her mother be evicted from their home by the village of East Hampton a few years earlier, when they'd run out of money to keep the place up, and had managed to violate just about every sanitation ordinance the village had on its books, from a lack of running water to an abundance of dead cats. Only the media coverage, full of photographs of Edie in a house piled high with garbage, had finally forced Jacqueline to come to their rescue in the end. She must have been delighted to see Edie in her costumes, feeding raccoons in the attic!

A line I'd never noticed more than any other struck me too, this time around. In telling the film crew about an argument with her mother, Edie says, "You see, in dealing with me the relatives didn't know they were dealing with a staunch woman. S-T-A-U-N-C-H. There's nothing worse. I'm telling you. They don't weaken. No matter what."

On the big screen, it becomes apparent that Edie does more than merely command all of the attention available at any given moment when she's onscreen. She raises questions. Her costumes require the film crew to ask questions that allow her to deliver the monologue du jour, the photographs she pulls out require questions about her brothers, and why they are nowhere to be found, or about her history, or her mother's. Her very presence raises in the house raises questions The question of why she's there, when she'd endlessly saying she'd rather be in New York. The question of why she left New York in the first place, when she doesn't seem to have wanted to. Neither of these questions ever receives anything like a satisfactory answer, in the film or elsewhere. Talking to Gail Sheehy, in 1971, for instance, Edie says that she had to come home because "Mother got the cats." That's hardly an answer, now is it? It is a funny dodge though, and unanswerable too, I'll give her that.

In any tedious sales training, one of the first things you learn is that the person asking the questions is always the one who holds the power. In the case of "Grey Gardens," Edie didn't have to say a word to take control. No one else ever stood a chance.

After her mother's death in 1977 Edie had a cabaret act for a little while, at a place on West 13th st. Her singing, apparently, was not so great, no big surprise there, to anyone who's seen the film. But she ended each performance with question and answer sessions which, judging from the snippets to be found, down towards the ends of all the bad reviews, were kind of brilliant. One night, for instance, when asked her opinion of premarital sex, Edie replied, "It's economical." I'm choosing to see a secret life inside that answer. One in which Edie got to have, love masticate, chew and even eat a little cake of her very own. You, of course, should do with it what you will.